On White Thugs Like Michael Dunn and the Scapegoating of Hip-Hop

What exactly does Michael Dunn know about rap music? I’d be willing to bet damned little. If the Florida prosecutors wanted to really embarrass the man who murdered seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis, they’d ask him to name the artist he and his friends were listening to. It was, after all, a dispute over loud music that set the series of events into motion. But my money says that Dunn couldn’t tell you the name of five rappers off the top of his head.

This hasn’t stopped Dunn from playing the hip-hop card in his attempts to curry public support. If anyone out there wants to put themselves through a stomach-churning ordeal, then head on over to the website his family set up. It includes this little gem in Dunn’s ownwritten statement:

While I don’t know for sure what caused Jordan Davis to react to violently to such a benign request [i.e. to turn down the music], I blame “Gangsta Rap” music and the thug culture that goes along with it for influencing violence. The driver of the SUV, Tommy Stornes, aka “Killmeace”, is a producer of “Gangsta Rap” music videos. He had a few songs on YouTube (since removed). At least one depicts pulling someone out of their car and shooting them, along with the requisite denigration of women. While Jordan Davis has no arrest record, he was not keeping good company – especially for a young man at such an impressionable age. 

Attempting to refute any of this to those who might support Dunn is a futile effort. Not because there’s any real veracity to the culture warrior linkage between music and violence; there isn’t. It’s futile because it is such an ingrained part of the narrative used by those touting the cause of an endangered white America. Everything about Michael Dunn says that this is a man who has thoroughly assimilated the belief that his America is under attack.

Vero Beach, the Florida enclave where he lived and ran a successful small business, is one big gated community — the kind of development designed deliberately as an exclusive outpost withdrawn from the mythical depravity of urban culture. Obviously a proud gun owner, he also defends the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws on his website as a bulwark against the “increase in violence this country is experiencing.” Other pages on the site compare Dunn’s first degree murder case with that of Kevin Williams, a man currently facing second degree murder charges. Williams, of course, is African American; the implication being that society is letting Black men run amok as good, hard-working, law-abiding white people are left to fend for themselves. Putting a button on Dunn’s blame for rap culture, he further argues:

I would offer that, rather than rail against the ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, people take a look at the violence and lifestyle that the “Gangsta Rap” music and the “thug life” promote.The jails are chock full of young black men – and so are the cemeteries. Gun laws have nothing to do with it. The violent sub-cultures that so many young men become enthralled with are destroying an entire generation. Root cause analysis says to correct the behavior. The black community needs to do a better job of selling worthwhile role models.

Again, this is the boilerplate of the culture war, with the creepy suggestion to “correct the behavior” essentially revealing the strong Jim Crow paternalism that’s always been at the heart of such nonsense. And yet ironically, Dunn’s site also declares that the issue at play wasn’t the volume of the music. This is quite obviously an odd claim to make given that a fair amount of space is devoted trying to deflect the blame from himself to the very same culture that supposedly isn’t really an issue.

The recent trial itself — which has now ended in a hung jury on the most serious charge — has likewise put lie to Dunn’s insistence that “it wasn’t about the music.” His own girlfriend, who was with him at the time, testified that when they pulled up to the convenience store that night, Davis’ friend’s car blasting its beats, he sat and grumbled about “that rap crap” and “thug music.” 

Seeing that there was no gun in the teenagers’ car (as Dunn originally claimed) and the fact that there was no real threat to his life despite some heated words being exchanged, it’s difficult to say that the music wasn’t at least something of a factor in his feeling justified in unloading his gun on the car next to him.

Which begs the question: Why is a man like Michael Dunn so threatened by rap? 

Bluntly, for the same reason that George Zimmerman thought that Trayvon Martin’s sweatshirt made him a threat. As I wrote in an article on Davis’ murder in 2012:

Parallels have rightly been drawn between Davis’ murder and that of Trayvon Martin this past February. Both involve apparently unarmed, seventeen year old Black males, profiled by an armed, white self-appointed vigilante.

And, significantly enough, both involved some kind of cultural marker so often used in racist America to deem Blacks a “threat.” In Martin’s case it was a hoodie pulled up over his head. For Davis, loud music is evidently enough to signify you as a potential murderer.

Invoking Emmett Till, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry put it succinctly: “Then, it was a whistle at a white woman. Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car.”

Michael Dunn and others like him feel threatened by rap because the racism of “post-racial” America is one that is probably more reliant on such markers than in Till’s time; cross-burnings and calls for open segregation don’t fly like they used to. In their place we talk about pathologized behaviors and “a culture of violence.” This stands in marked contrast to the way that people like Dunn are described; rarely do any media talking heads describe him as well-off or privileged. Instead he is talked about as “successful” while he describes himself as hard-working. 

Of course, beneath all the rhetoric, Dunn’s defense is a crock of shit through and through. But that doesn’t mean justice will be served for Jordan Davis any more than it was for Trayvon Martin. The very music that supposedly “isn’t an issue” may, in the minds of a great many white, anxious, middle-class Americans, be the exact reason that Dunn deserves to walk.

For thirty years conservatives have painted hip-hop culture as some sort of dangerous weapon. If only that were so on the night that Dunn asked Davis’ friends to turn the music down; the teenager might still be alive. But unfortunately for him a gun in the hands of an insecure white man is much more dangerous than any music can possibly be.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse